'Right place, wrong time' hero of Black Saturday fires

PAUL Erlandsen is the acknowledged hero who received a Bravery Medal last week for his actions on Black Saturday, but says the award truly belongs to the CFA.

Mr Erlandsen, of Upper Ferntree Gully, was honoured at Government House on Friday for demonstrating considerable bravery by rescuing and assisting his neighbours on February 7, 2009. Australian bravery decorations are awarded to people who put themselves in jeopardy to protect the lives or property of others.

But he is a reluctant hero, saying it was a case of "right place, wrong time". The Quarry Road resident came home on February 7 to look after his sick dog Suki and enjoy some fish and chips.

But his plans soon changed when he saw smoke coming out of the former CSR quarry: "I was in a bit of a panic."

He first checked there was no one in the quarry and then raced to the house of his neighbours, Tony and Diane, to check on them. He crossed several backyards to avoid the radiant heat to reach the elderly couple.

Diane was trying to get the hoses in the yard working, but an earlier fire had already destroyed the water mains.

Mr Erlandsen knew from the radiant heat that they all had to get out of there as quickly as possible.

But Diane briefly collapsed from "nervous exhaustion" and the couple refused to leave without their 13-year-old dog Jess, who weighed about 40 kilograms.

The trio managed to get moving again — with Jess in tow. They crawled under several fences to escape the flames and smoke which brought on attacks of nausea.

They were physically ill several times, but kept going and when Jess tried to give up, Mr Erland-sen grabbed her by the neck and dragged her to safety.

When they finally reached safe ground, Mr Erlandsen learned his house was burning, but he was not allowed to return to it.

He collected Suki and later collapsed from exhaustion.

Luck played a big part, Mr Erlandsen recalled. CFA officers dumped many loads of water on fires in the area from Elvis, the firefighting helicopter, which saved several properties, including Mr Erlandsen's home.

And about 75 firefighters who were heading up to fight the fires at Kingsville were delayed and joined the fight at Upper Ferntree Gully.

He said he was shocked to receive the award — "the CFA [firefighters] were the real heroes of the day".

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